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Migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats: What do we know?

16 Oct 2020

By Peter William Walsh

Recent reports of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats have reignited a debate about unauthorised migration and asylum seeking in the UK.

On 4 October 2020, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, made a speech in which she committed to reforming the UK’s asylum system.

This commentary reviews what is known about migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

How many migrants have crossed the English Channel in small boats?

The Home Office does not regularly publish a running total, though it has relevant administrative records and occasionally releases figures.

The most recent official figures comes from Abi Tierney, the Director General of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI). In oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 3 September 2020, Tierney stated that 5,000 people had crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2020. Of these, 98% claimed asylum once in the UK.

A second official count is found in a letter of 2 September 2020 from the Home Secretary to the Home Affairs Committee. It states that from 1 January 2018 to 30 June 2020, around 4,600 people had been “detected” attempting to enter the UK clandestinely by small boat, with around 2,500 detected in 2020 up to 30 June. Unlike the number provided by the Director General of UKVI, this count does not include people detected in July and August. This suggests that 2,500 migrants were detected in July and August. The number of people detected are broken down by quarter (Figure 1). These numbers refer to both people detected at sea and brought to the UK, as well as those detected within the UK where authorities believed individuals arrived by small boat, even if no boat was found. They do not include those who were prevented from departing France, or who were intercepted by French authorities and returned to France.

Although the number of people detected crossing the English Channel has increased, with a large majority of these people claiming asylum once they reach the UK, the overall number of people seeking asylum in the UK fell considerably in 2020, probably because of the closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic of other routes, such as air and road (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Why are migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats?

Reports of migrants attempting to enter the UK clandestinely by crossing the Channel go back a long way. In 1999, the Red Cross built the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais, in response to asylum seekers fleeing conflict in the Balkans and elsewhere collecting near to the Eurostar tracks. The camp was closed in 2002, but some asylum seekers remained there, and the area continued to attract migrants planning to reach the UK, with many sleeping rough.

The problem rose to prominence again in 2014. At that time, the focus was on migrants attempting to enter the UK without authorisation by stowing away on ships, such as passenger ferries, and on trucks, cars and trains passing through the Channel Tunnel.

Since 2014, the UK has strengthened its security at the French-UK border, including through border controls – known as ‘juxtaposed controls’ – at French and Belgian ports. In October 2016, the Calais migrant camp, known as the ‘Calais Jungle’, which had grown since the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp, was cleared. At that time, the Jungle was estimated to be home to seven thousand migrants.

Despite the closure of Sangatte to prevent Eurostar stowaways, and the clearance of the Calais Jungle to prevent lorry and ferry stowaways, crossings continue, having been recorded regularly since late 2018. Campaigners argue that this is because people seeking asylum have little choice but to enter the UK irregularly and via clandestine means, as there are no safe and legal alternatives. It is not possible to apply for asylum from outside the UK.

The representative to the UK of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that more stringent controls on road travel, and the coronavirus pandemic, have had the effect of closing off lorry and air routes to the UK, leading to more people using alternative means – such as crossing the Channel in small boats. This is supported by the fact that a rise in small boat crossings has coincided with a fall in the overall number of people seeking asylum.

Where do these migrants come from?

The latest official data on the nationality of people crossing the Channel in small boats is also found in the Home Secretary’s letter of 2 September 2020. This stated that around half of those making the crossing from 1 January to 30 June 2020 were Iranian, and around a quarter were Iraqi (Figure 2).

Figure 2

How many Channel migrants claim asylum once they reach the UK?

The Home Office does not routinely publish breakdowns of asylum claims by claimants’ method of arrival in the UK.

However, we do have official information regarding how many Channel migrants claimed asylum for 2020 up until September. In oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 3 September 2020, the Director General of UKVI stated that of the 5,000 people who had made it to the UK in 2020 to that date, 98% had claimed asylum.

Of these asylum claimants, half had received an initial decision, of which 20% had been granted asylum or another form of leave, 10% were refused any form of asylum-related leave, and around 70% had received no initial decision because the Home Office believes that another EU member state country has the legal responsibility for deciding those applicants’ claims because they had passed through another EU country, or had already applied for asylum in another country, before reaching the UK.

Although we do not have any more data on the outcomes of the asylum claims of Channel migrants, we do know that in recent years more than half of asylum applications result in a grant of asylum or other form of permission to stay, taking into account successful appeals (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Notably, the likelihood of people being granted asylum varies widely from nationality to nationality, with the nationalities that are most common among Channel migrants, like Iranian and Syrian, having a higher-than-average likelihood of being ultimately granted asylum or another form of leave (Table 1).

Table 1

How many Channel migrants have been returned to EU member states?

There is no law that says asylum seekers must make their asylum claim in the first safe country they arrive in after leaving their country of origin. However, under an EU law called the Dublin III Regulation, asylum seekers can be transferred to the first EU member state in which they arrived after leaving their origin country.

There are no routinely published official statistics on Dublin returns broken down by returnees’ method of arrival in the UK – such as clandestinely via small boat. However, in a Parliamentary written answer, the government said that from January 2019 until June 2020, 155 people who entered the UK without authorisation on small boats had been “returned to Europe” – less than 4% of the roughly 4,300 detected arrivals in that period. However, it is not clear how many were returned under the Dublin regulation.

There are, however, official statistics on the total number of Dublin returns. These statistics show that in recent years a small fraction of asylum seekers are returned to other EU member states under the Dublin regulation. In the five-year period 2015 to 2019, almost 200,000 people applied for asylum in the UK – while there were only 1,660 Dublin transfers out of the country (Figure 4).

From 1 January 2021, when the Brexit transition period ends, the UK will cease to be party to the Dublin III Regulation. To maintain the option of returning an asylum seeker to their first EU country of entry, the UK will have to enter into an agreement with either the EU as a whole or with individual member states. Without such agreements, the UK will probably have to consider the claim of every person who seeks asylum here.

Figure 4

Concluding remarks

As an island nation, the UK has in recent years generally received fewer asylum seekers than other more accessible European states, such as Germany, France, Greece, Italy and Spain. Nevertheless, many people planning to claim asylum identify the UK as their preferred destination.

But to claim asylum in the UK, a person must first reach the UK. It is not possible to apply for asylum abroad, and there is no asylum visa, and no legal way of entering the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum.


The Migration Observatory’s work on post-Brexit immigration policy is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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